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Why Keith Ellison (yes, Keith Ellison) has been talking so much about older, rural white men

Ellison said his concern about the mortality rates of older, white rural men is a message the DFL — especially its progressive wing — needs to hear. Part of the reason is political, he acknowledged. But it’s also moral. 

Rep. Keith Ellison speaking at his campaign rally at Minneapolis’ First Avenue nightclub on Friday the 13th: “I want you all to know that if you look at the numbers, the one group that is seeing their mortality numbers get worse are 50-year-old straight white men in rural communities.”
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson

It was an unexpected message from a surprising messenger in an unlikely venue.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison was revving up the crowd for the main event at his campaign rally at Minneapolis’ First Avenue nightclub on Friday the 13th. Right before he turned the stage over to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ellison asked those packed onto the dance floor to think about a particular demographic that is suffering:  It’s a group of people that gets little attention and even less love from the progressives that gravitated to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, said the attorney general candidate and deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee.

That group? Older white men.

“I want you all to know that if you look at the numbers, the one group that is seeing their mortality numbers get worse are 50-year-old straight white men in rural communities,” Ellison told the crowd. “They are being hit with the opioid crisis, they are being hit with suicide and depression. This is happening.”

‘No one outside our circle of compassion’

It’s a demographic that is not a sympathetic one for many on the left, seen by many as synonymous with Trump’s America. But Ellison, extremely popular with that wing of the party, disagrees. “There is this idea that because of historic racism and sexism and all those other -isms, there is this idea that if you are a straight white male that you’ve got everything straight. But when you are in a society that says you are better than other people then you don’t get to have problems, right?” Ellison continued. “You understand what I’m trying to say? You don’t get to be a human being when they try to exalt you above other folks. So you’re suffering but no one really knows. I say this to you because I want you to know that there is no one, no one, no one outside of our circle of compassion. All are in. Everyone is in.”

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At the First Avenue event, the Sanders crowd listened mostly quietly and applauded at the end. But the message was hardly greeted with the same enthusiasm as when Ellison heaped criticism on Trump — especially his recent Supreme Court nominee — or when he mentioned his support for the legalization of marijuana.

When asked later about that segment of his speech, Ellison said it is a message the DFL — especially its urban and progressive segment — needs to hear. Yes, he acknowledged, part of the reason is political. Democrats nationally lost older white men to Donald Trump in 2016 after many of them had voted for Barack Obama in previous presidential elections. And he argues that Democrats and progressives have a message that could appeal to those voters and make a difference in both 2018 and 2020.

But the other reason, Ellison said, is moral. “I didn’t say it there by accident,” he said of his remarks at the First Avenue rally. “I said it there because you’re talking about a lot of urban folks, a lot of young folks, a lot of kids of color, a lot of women. And we need to start combating this idea that only people who belong to a historically marginalized community feel like things aren’t working. A lot of people feel that way. And we have to speak to what everybody is going through.”

Ellison said Trump was successful in carving off blue-collar white males by telling them that Democrats don’t care about them. While Ellison argues that Trump policies have hurt working people regardless of race or ZIP code, that message is often hard for Democrats to deliver due to a  lack of trust. “Because we will not address the concerns of all Americans, we leave certain people out of the conversation,” he said after a recent campaign event in North Branch. “And I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, not on moral grounds but also not on political grounds.”

Study ‘had a profound impact’

In 2015, two economists from Princeton University, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published a study that found an increase in mortality rates among middle-aged white men and women between 1999 and 2013. That decline in life expectancy reversed decades of progress and was unique to the United States. The impact was more evident among those with lower education levels.

The numbers are staggering. Had the white mortality rate held steady at its 1998 level, the study found, there would have been 96,000 fewer deaths between 1998 and 2013. Had it continued at the rate of decline experienced between 1978 and 1998, 488,500 deaths would have been avoided.

While increases in suicide, opioid and heroin overdoses and alcohol abuse explains some of the phenomenon, the authors said that financial stress might have played a role as well. Median household incomes of whites began falling in the late 1990s.

In a 2017 interview with The Atlantic, Deaton remarked on one of the more surprising reactions to the study. “There’s only one Congressman in all of Congress who called up to make an appointment to talk to us about dying white people, because they were in his constituency and he was really concerned about them,” Deaton told the magazine.

Who? asked writer Anne Lowrey. 

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“Keith Ellison,” said Deaton. “I was really impressed.”

“This study had a profound impact on me,” said Ellison, who pulled his phone out to find the study and the interview, partly to show that his interest in the idea didn’t coincide with his first statewide campaign.

“Now what does that mean for public policy?” he said. “Well, one thing it means is that we’ve got to make sure this economy is working for people, because I think we undercount how critical a functioning economy is to people’s emotional well being. Imagine not being able to take care of your family?”

Ellison told a story of a man who had promised his daughter that if she got good grades he would find the money to send her to college. When the time came, however, he couldn’t.

“Imagine how that dad feels. You know what I mean. That’s tough,” Ellison said. “That man happened to be a white man. But did I identify with the sentiment? Absolutely. Absolutely I could have been saying that same thing. Somehow we don’t see how similar we all really are and I think we need to.”

But Ellison also tied the issue to election politics. “Don’t tell me that there’s certain parts of the country that are just not reachable by a progressive person. You’ve got teachers striking in West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Dakota. And there are a lot of places in Minnesota that are just like those states. And there are people who said this school thing has gone too far. And they got out there and they did something about it.

“If we will just talk to everyone, we can make this country so much better for everyone. This has been on my mind a lot.”